In the past week or so news in the US has been rife about the Centre for Environmental Health (CEH) research finding an outlawed ingredient in California present in 98 products including a large number of shampoos carried by major retailers - an alleged carcinogen called Cocamide DEA.

As an avid product enthusiast I've seen this ingredient listed on the back of shampoo bottles a lot in the past, and this is the first time I've ever seen any mention of it being potentially harmful, so I decided to dig a little deeper.

A simple Google search shows the second result to be owned by Lush. A brand known for their transparency, the link points to a page explaining what Cocamide DEA does and why they use it, but I decided to give them a call where a very helpful guy with good scientific knowledge gave me a rundown. Whilst Lush pride themselves on using natural, organic and environmentally-friendly ingredients, some parabens and synthetics are included to prolong shelf life and give the products a better feel and certain qualities that can't yet be replicated naturally, although they do consistently work to make things as natural as possible. In this case, CDEA is used as a 'wetting agent' and to make products creamier and more foamy. However, these synthetics are usually the last on the ingredients list and as such, the smallest amounts are used just to give the products a bit of a helping hand.

So what exactly is CDEA and what does it do?

It stands for cocamide diethanolamine, and to put it in scientific terms, its a 'surfactant' - a portmanteau of 'surface active agent' (the "wetting agent" referred to before). It it derived from coconut oil by means of hydrolysis and then reacted with diethanolamine to form this surfactant. Surfactants have a couple of properties; in shampoo, the 'wetting' refers to the lowering of surface tension of water on the hair surface, allowing other key ingredients to get closer to the cuticle if the hair shaft and deliver moisture and other benefits. Additionally, surfactants are both water- and oil-soluble - they allow water and oil to mix. CDEA is rarely, if ever, used as the primary surfactant in shampoos - most manufacturers favour sodium- or ammonium-based sulfates, partly because they're more effective but also because Cocamidea DEA can only be used in certain concentrations.

My next concern was what this means for the products my salon carries, which are manufactured in the States. I called our senior buyer in the merchandising department, who said it was the first she had heard of the news. While she couldn't be certain of the levels of CDEA in our shampoos, what she could tell me with certainty is that all of our products conform to EU standards. Now, this is a pretty interesting point. One thing that the UK and US differ on is state legislation. While Californian laws state that Cocamide DEA might not be allowed, this probably isn't the case across the US as a whole. In the UK, we must conform to the Cosmetics Regulations as an EU member state, (which, incidentally, replaced the Cosmetics Directive this year to outlaw animal testing within the EU).

So, lastly, let's cover the alleged dangers. To put it plainly, Cocamide DEA in and of itself is harmless.  However, in the right conditions, whilst a product sits on a shelf in shop or cabinet at home, it may react with other ingredients in the bottle to form N-nitrosodiethanolamine. THIS is the harmful chemical that can be absorbed through the skin and has been linked with cancer, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). What's important to note is that its the DEA, (the synthetic bit), that reacts here, regardless of the coconut derivative. Other chemicals such as Lauramide DEA and DEA Lauryl Sulfate, and any compounds containing triathanolamine (TEA), can also react and become NDEA or NTEA.

So what can we do?

Put simply, nothing for the time being - but its unlikely to be as harmful as it sounds. Here are a few pointers:

- If a DEA or TEA compound is listed on your shampoo, look at where it is on the list. The further toward the end the lower the concentration, and the lower the risk.

- Don't use products contains these compounds that are out of date. Look for a little symbol on the bottle that looks like an open pot. It will have a number followed by the letter M. This is the shelf life in months from the day of opening.

- Finally, if its really a concern to you, don't buy or use products containing these compounds. They're legal to sell and are probably safe, but there are plenty of alternatives that don't contain DEA or TEA.